One More Hurdle
Having dispatched Norwich City with relative ease, Everton now have just one more match to navigate before the looming international break and - hopefully - the anticipated returns of several important players to fitness. Unfortunately that match happens to be Manchester United at Old Trafford, which has been a less-than-welcoming venue for the Blues for - well, an awfully long time. This would be a difficult proposition even with the likes of Dominic Calvert-Lewin, Richarlison and Seamus Coleman available; without all three the game amounts to almost a free hit.
Everton’s last success on United’s home turf was way back in 2013, with Bryan Oviedo scoring a fantastic goal against ex-Toffees boss David Moyes’ struggling outfit to seal a 1-0 victory. Seven visits have followed, with the Merseysiders managing only 3 draws, the last of which saw Calvert-Lewin rescue a point last season with a dramatic equalizer in stoppage time. Alas, he won’t be available on Saturday.
United will be coming into this match on shaky form, with only a 2-1 win at West Ham United in their last 4 games. With a tricky Champions League encounter against Spanish outfit Villareal on Wednesday evening, the pressure could well be on manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer this weekend. By contrast, a vital 2-0 win at Goodison over an out-gunned Norwich has dispelled (for the moment) any media talk concerning EFC boss Rafa Benitez.
Defeat would be unwelcome, but would attract little criticism under the circumstances. The Blues would then have 15 days until their next fixture, welcoming West Ham to Goodison on the 17th of October and with hopefully all the major injured players ready to go.
The Only Viable Option
After the calamitous performances of Tom Davies and Andre Gomes in Everton’s Carabao Cup exit to Queens Park Rangers last week, it surprised absolutely nobody to see Abdoulaye Doucoure and Allan restored to action against Norwich. Gomes and Davies came into the season as the primary backups in central midfield. Tom had played well at times under Carlo Ancelotti, whereas Andre has produced some nice cameos off the bench this season, but paired together it was a disaster zone, as the two were completely outplayed by Championship opposition.
Oh! What a difference Allan and Doucoure made on Saturday! Both played industriously, harassing Norwich players in possession, taking up good defensive positions, getting a foot in and making interceptions. They played intelligently and the players seem to have a good level of understanding of each other’s games, covering well and rarely getting caught too far apart when without the ball. Norwich could not make inroads through the midfield; even when dominating possession for a period in the second half, they rarely threatened.
The two will be vital if Everton are to get anything from the match against United on Saturday afternoon. If the Red devils have an area of weakness, then it is in the centre of the park. Despite splashing the cash again this summer, arguably in areas that were already strengths, United bizarrely have not bought a central midfielder since Fred arrived from Shakhtar Donetsk back in 2018. With their options being the erratic Brazilian, Scott McTominay and the ageing Nemanja Matic this is a seriously weak area for such an expensively-assembled squad and it is an argument that they have never adequately replaced Ander Herrera, who departed more than two years ago.
For a number of years Everton have struggled with reacting in the right way when presented with adverse situations: going behind, trailing at half-time, visits to “big 4 or 6” grounds. Even Moyes’s teams struggled to impose themselves at places like Old Trafford; in 11 seasons as Blues chief, the Scotsman failed to win there, registering only 3 draws and 8 losses. That his Everton teams, which prioritized character, ruggedness and determination, couldn’t get over this sort of hurdle puzzled most Evertonians. OK, Alex Ferguson’s United team was a relentless winning machine, but they did get beat at home occasionally and the Toffees were able to field some impressive teams during this period.
Since Moyes departed, there have been few periods of stability and those brief enough. A constant churn of managers, building and rebuilding of squads, accumulation of players that flop and can’t be shifted, sometimes for years - all have produced a team that has generally found itself lacking in esprit de corps. Without this, it is very difficult for any team to respond to setbacks in the correct way.
This season, quixotically under a manager that would initially divide the fanbase, the team is showing signs of developing this all-important characteristic. Already, the Blues have twice reacted to shipping the first goal at home and gone on to win handily, against Southampton and Burnley. Even an understrength Toffees team came back from trailing 2-0 at half-time against QPR to level the cup match, before going out via the dreaded penalty shootout.
The players seem to have bought into Benitez’s way of doing things and have so far avoided the curious habits of not showing up for some matches, or being unable to put together a consistent 90 minutes, which have dogged all his predecessors. This season, Everton have not played brilliantly throughout every game, not at all, but the poor stretches haven’t been quite as bad, or lasted as long. There have been reactions to slow starts, or mid-game dips. Only in the first half of the QPR match - where few first-choice players were on display - and the 10-minute collapse against Aston Villa, could it be said that the team didn’t react well. Knowing Benitez as we do, I feel certain he would have acted quickly to remind the players of the need to keep calm, composed and discipled after those particular setbacks.
Of course, the key is to keep this going all season, so it becomes the team’s identity.